To contemplate genius is to call forth history's month fascinating people.Take Leonardo da Vinci, whose artworks— The Last Supper, the Mona Lisa—shine like beacons across the centuries. His scientific writings secured his position as the quintessential Renaissance man. Other polymaths also stand out as exemplars of genius: René Descartes, Benjamin Franklin, Mikhail Lomonosov.
The patterns hidden in the names we summon are telling. The people we choose to venerate expose both the defining cognitive features and the circumstances that kindle exceptional creativity.
Early genuises often demonstrated excellence in more than one area, and today's luminaries my seem less acomplished by comparison. A few trends suggest that the era of big genius may be over, at least in the sciences: the average ages at which people win the Nobel Prize or earn their first patents have both increased over the years.
A contemporary genius, it seems, must climb higher to ascend to the shoulders of giants. Despite the need to specialize, pursuing broad interests remains a hallmark of a brilliant mind. Finding the time to do both can itself be an act of genius.
Reaching the rank of genius is not a solitary enterprise. Ibn Khaldun, a great 14th-century Arab thinker, noted several mistakes that historians can make, among them a failure to place an event in its context.
A focus on individual accomplishment downplays the contributions of a vast supporting cast of family members, assistants and peers. Rather than lacking ability, these individuals may not have had the resources, freedom or desire to unleash their ideas on the world stage. A favorable genetic endowment creates the potential for greatness. Permissive life circumstances allow the rare individual to seize the chance to shine. Only now is the opportunity to excel at the highest levels becoming more widely available.
The thicket of cultural, social and genetic forces at humanity's intellectual summit holds important clues for the future. To reach our full potential as a species, we must cultivate an environment in which ingenuity thrives.
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